Ah, Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. There has already been plenty of clever things said about the book so I don’t think I need to keep puzzling my head to try and say something clever or comment on any of the clever things others have said about the book. Instead, I am just going to tell you how much I enjoyed this book.
I know it’s a hefty one but it reads pretty fast. And the silliness! It’s subtitle isn’t “A Cock and Bull Story” for nothing! It is supposed to be the history of Tristram Shandy, gentleman, but the book is mostly about Mr. Shandy and his hilarious philosophizing and kind Uncle Toby and his servant Corporal Trim and Uncle Toby’s hobby-horse of digging up the bowling green to create scale models of towns and then reenacting battles. There is also Susannah the maid and Dr. Slop, and reverend Yorick as well as Mrs. Wadman who loves Uncle Toby and sallies forth on her own battle campaigns to win his heart. And of course the digressions. Chapters on hobby-horses, noses, and names. Threatened chapters on breeches and buttons. Chapters on nothing at all. Chapters with the narrator telling us what he is going on about and scolding the critics or claiming to satisfy the critics but mostly making fun of critics. There are chapters of writing advice too. There are made up words and made up Latin. There is a certain amount of bawdiness and insinuation. What it all amounts to is a rollicking good romp of a time that had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion.
If you like your stories linear this is not a book for you. If you like your stories to actually be stories with a plot, this book is not for you. If you get annoyed when someone is telling you a story and they have to give you five or six other stories before the one they wanted to tell you can get told, this book is not for you. This is a novel composed almost entirely of digressions; take them out, and there is nothing left. The narrator is even kind enough to tell us so fairly early on:
Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading!—take them out of this book, for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them;—one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it; restore them to the writer;—he steps forth like a bridegroom,—bids All-hail; brings in variety, and forbids the appetite to fail.
But don’t worry about losing the thread with all the digressions. Sterne is very good at juggling all the balls and keeping the reader from getting lost and confused. Oh sure, there where a few times my attention wandered and I suddenly found myself in the middle of a story and had no idea how I’d gotten there, but that too is part of the fun. There are so many ways you can read this book, so many rich veins that can be mined, but I think the first reading should be for no other purpose than to enjoy the story. Let yourself guffaw and hoot and holler and worry about all the details another time. You won’t be disappointed.